Past Exhibitions

Golden Gate Park in the Gilded Age

October 24, 2019 – March 17, 2020; September 29, 2021 – November 12, 2021

Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach played a significant role in the lives of San Franciscans during the Gilded Age. The dedication of every monument or new attraction became a citywide celebration. This exhibition of rarely seen photographs gleaned from family albums and nineteenth-century studio catalogues is our contribution to the celebration of Golden Gate Park’s sesquicentennial.

Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women

October 11. 2018 – September 1, 2019

Her Side of the Story was a year-long project by The Society of California Pioneers Museum and Library where we highlighted art and artifacts from our collection to illustrate the unique, first-person accounts preserved by The Association of Pioneer Women of California. This is now a travelling exhibit in conjunction with Exhibit Envoy; tour dates can be found on their website.

Under Western Skies; Landscapes by California Artists

January – August 2018

In the twenty landscapes selected for this exhibition, the verdant greens and rich browns used to capture the beauty and grandeur of California’s topography shared the canvas with every shade of blue, white, and grey. Works by Maynard Dixon, Thomas Hill, William Keith, Jules Tavernier, and other early California artists included lively scenes depicting Yosemite, Squaw Valley, Fort Ross, The Salinas Valley, Mission Bay, and Mt. Tamalpais.

I Hope This Finds You Well; Letters from The California Gold Rush

September – December 2017

Far from home and often homesick, forty-niners wrote letters to loved ones describing both the challenges and the rewards of their new life in California. These rare, first-person narratives provided a nuanced understanding of life during the Gold Rush by revealing the hopes, dreams, and fears of those who came before us. I Hope This Finds You Well also featured selections from The Society’s impressive collection of nineteenth-century pictorial letter sheets, providing a vivid visual record of early San Francisco, life in the gold fields, and the important events of the day.

California’s First Philanthropist; The Legacy of James Lick

February – August 2017

California’s First Philanthropist examined the largesse and legacy of James Lick, who used his considerable wealth to establish charitable “protection and relief” organizations to address the basic needs of the many who were less fortunate in the boom and bust economy of early San Francisco. In addition to manuscripts and ephemera from The Society’s archives, the exhibition featured works by Isaiah West Taber; his photographs documented the construction and operation of projects funded by The Lick Trust, including both The California Academy of Sciences and The Lick Observatory. Exhibited in conjunction with The Observatory and Special Collections Library at The University of California Santa Cruz, San Francisco’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, The California Academy of Sciences, and others.

What’s The Rush? How California Became the Golden State

January – December 2016

On January 24, 1848, a young carpenter named John Sutter found tiny nuggets of gold in a California river that would change the course of American history. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of people came to trade the comfortable life they knew elsewhere for the hope of striking it rich in this rough and unsettled territory. Some were successful, many failed, and most stayed, establishing a new state with a reputation for tenacity and an independent spirit. What’s the Rush? featured rarely seen art and artifacts from our archives, maintained by The Society of California Pioneers since 1850, to tell their story.

Established in San Francisco; Four Iconic California Brands

June – October 2015

Although wild speculation fueled the boom-and-bust Gold Rush era, some of San Francisco’s earliest entrepreneurs crafted sound, enduring business models. Drawn from privately held company archives, family scrapbooks, stockrooms, as well as The Society’s collection of business records and city directories Established in San Francisco told the story of four pioneers in their industry and who are still in business today: Levi Strauss & Co., Tadich Grill, Anchor Brewing, and Shreve & Company.

Circa 1849; Treasures from Our Archives

October 2014 – May 2015

Our first exhibition in Pioneer Hall at the Presidio featured treasures from our collection amassed over the past 165 years, including some of the grand and impressive works of art in our collection, as well as rare manuscripts and artifacts that both quietly capture the unique experience of individual pioneers and illuminate their contribution to our shared history. Circa 1849 was designed to reintroduce us as a vital part of the community that fosters an appreciation for the experiences of those who came before us, as a research facility for historians, and as a Society dedicated to the preservation and presentation of artifacts that document the early history of California.

Preservation and Celebration; The History of The Society of California Pioneers

January – May 2013

As our organization prepared to open Pioneer Hall at the Presidio and begin a new chapter in our history, we took time to look back both the founding of our organization, as well as the significance of the collection of manuscripts, documents, fine art, and artifacts we have amassed and maintained since 1850.

Singing the Golden State

Jan. 25, 2012 – May 31, 2013

Singing the Golden State featured graphically striking sheet-music covers published from 1849 through the 1930s, along with other printed materials, sound recordings, instruments, and memorabilia relating to California and its early musical life. The exhibit included approximately 150 pieces of sheet music organized to illuminate such topics as the Gold Rush, fairs and exhibitions, commerce and advertising, clubs and organizations, sports and amusements, children, minorities, transportation, and a tour of the Golden State, in addition to a section on the state song, “I Love You, California,” composed in 1913.

Curiosities & Keepsakes: Treasures of San Francisco’s Past

September 1, 2010 – December 3, 2011

Curiosities & Keepsakes focused on the unique people, places, and events that made 19th century San Francisco the interesting, lively and unique place it has been in the past and present. Featured were colorful characters (Emperor Norton and Ada Mencken), unique places to spend leisure time (Sutro Baths, the Cobweb Palace and Woodward’s Gardens), and the material objects that surrounded these people and places.

The San Francisco Seals Goodwill Baseball Tour of Japan (1949)

October 7, 2009 – Fall 2010

The 1940’s equivalent of the famed “ping-pong” diplomacy practiced by the U.S. and mainland China in the 1970’s, the 1949 U.S. Goodwill Baseball Tour of Japan was one of the first peacetime cultural exchanges of the post-war era between Japan and the United States. Organized by Lefty O’Doul, the eleven-game tour drew more than half a million spectators to the games played at Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

Incompletely Visible: The Legacy of the Bay Area Missions

February 6 – May 28, 2010

Incompletely Visible explored the daily lives of the Catholic missionaries, Spanish soldiers, and Native Americans who established a rudimentary agrarian society along California’s Pacific Coast. This collaborative exhibition drew upon a selection of The Society’s rare photographs, maps and drawings and a wealth of artifacts from Mission Dolores and The Presidio.

The Streets of San Francisco

January 23 – August 29, 2008

The Streets of San Francisco incorporated maps, photographs, prints, and artifacts that recalled San Francisco’s transformation from mission outpost to instant metropolis in order to highlight the lives of the people that San Francisco streets were named after, including wealthy pioneers and early Spanish explorers. The exhibition also incorporated a number of buildings, monuments, and public spaces bearing such names as Crocker, Fair, Flood, Hopkins, Huntington, Russ, Spreckels, and Stanford, all of whom made significant contributions to the history and the life of the city.

The Big Picture: Panoramic Views of California

July 26 – March 3, 2007

Early California photographers honed their craft by experimenting with and expanding on the quality and range of the images they photographed. One result of this experimentation was the panoramic image, providing the viewer with “the big picture” of the region’s cities and landscapes, composed of a series of individual photographs lined up horizontally to create a wide-angle view. Panoramas featured in The Big Picture included works by Eadweard Muybridge, Carlton Watkins, William Shew, and Willard Worden. This exhibition was curated by Marcia Eymann, co-editor of Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush and a frequent curatorial consultant in the Bay Area.

From Empire State to Golden Gate: Alexander Cartwright and the Pacific Coast League

July 6-December 14, 2007

Although the history of baseball begins in New York, much of its early development took place in the Far West. Baseball arrived with the Gold Rush with Alexander Cartwright and rapidly became a pastime enjoyed by many, eventually culminating in the establishment of a Pacific Coast League. The Society of California Pioneers was pleased to present this fascinating if little known episode from the annals of history in From Empire State to Golden Gate: Alexander Cartwright and the Pacific Coast League.

Good Prospects: Life in the California Gold Fields

May 9, 2007 – Summer 2009

Good Prospects: Life in the California Gold Fields examined with an affectionate eye the lives of the “forty-niners” who traveled to California with hopes of making their fortune. The exhibition traced their travels, experiences, and hardships with a selection of sheet music and instruments, photography, paintings, books, maps, and journalistic and eyewitness accounts found in the permanent collections of The Society of California Pioneers.

Continental Drift: California Painting, 1918 – 1939

January, 25-June 29, 2007

Continental Drift was a survey of oil paintings and watercolors from the end of the First World War up until the eve of the Second World War, including work from Maynard Dixon, Percy Gray, Armin Hansen, and Louis Siegriest. The exhibition examined the social, economic, and cultural conditions that prevailed in California during the Roaring 20s and the Depression, and how the California scene was vigorously reinterpreted by a new generation of painters with influences from European, New York, and the American Regionalist schools.

Shake, Bake & Spin! San Francisco and the Media in the Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

April 12 – December 8, 2006

In the immediate aftermath of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, San Francisco city officials and business leaders became concerned that the extensive international coverage and reaction to the disaster threatened the city’s future prosperity. Shake, Bake & Spin! used historic documents, retrieved relics, photographs, newspapers, and film to examine the reselling of the events of April 18, 1906 to accommodate commercial interests and stem the outflow of residents and capital, as well as refocus attention on the rebuilding of the city.

Treasures of The Society of California Pioneers

September 14, 2005 – March 17, 2006

The collections of The Society of California Pioneers, formed beginning in the 1850s and predicated on the reigning mindset of growth and unlimited opportunity, provide a remarkable artistic and historical legacy that document a new civilization on the rise. The exhibit showcased some of the collections’ most exciting pieces, including portraits of early pioneers, the Lick Medal, and photographs of the Pioneer Building at Fourth and Market, among many others.

Documenting Eden: The Wine Country Photographs of Turrill & Miller

January 19 – July 29, 2005

The images in Documenting Eden were drawn from a photographic survey of the wine industry conducted by Turrill & Miller in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys during 1906 and 1907. The exhibition offered a window into an important era in California’s history, with glorious vineyard facades set next to the lives of everyday men and women, whom Turrill saw as being equal in importance to more prominent public figures in the state’s history.

The King’s Orphan: Drawings of an Early Swedish Explorer to California

June 25 – December 10, 2004

The exhibition features thirty-three drawings made between 1842 and 1843 by a Swedish explorer to California (and the alleged illegitimate offspring of King Karl XIII) recording everything he saw for the benefit of king and country. The King’s Orphan drawings are among the most important treasures in the collection of The Society of California Pioneers. Executed at an age when the medium of photography was not yet available in California, the drawings represent a first impression of a remote and singular place captured with the wit and naiveté of a first-time visitor.

The Language of Landscape

June 17, 2004 – May 27, 2005

Even up until the last decade of the nineteenth century, California’s natural beauty was still being discovered, and artists were quick to fill the growing demand for paintings of the state’s rich natural environment. The topography of California and the region’s abundant botanical life provided countless subjects for these artists’ depictions of life in the new land. By exploring the theme of landscape, this exhibition helped show where our understanding of California as a beautiful and distinctive land began.

Etched in Memory: Urban Views from the John S. Drum Collection

January 28 – May 28, 2004

Etched in Memory featured the work of San Francisco natives Armin Hansen and Lawrence Scammon, the Austrian émigré John Joseph Winkler, and Massachusetts-born Loren Roberta Barton, among others. While most California artists of the time were creating traditional landscapes, these artists chose to focus on the burgeoning life of cities, their architecture, ethnic neighborhoods, and bustling waterfronts. The collection was purchased from John Sylvester Drum (1872-1957), a prominent attorney who served as president of the American Trust Corporation as well as president of the American Bankers’ Association, and sat on the boards of Pacific Gas & Electric and the Yosemite Valley Railroad Company.

Territorial Ambitions: Mapping the Far West 1772-1872

October 31, 2003 – May 28, 2004

This exhibition spanned the period of Western exploration from the later eighteenth century up until the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Territorial Ambitions contained approximately fifty maps from The Society’s collection that were exhibited for the first time, as well as gold region maps, coastal surveys, railroad maps, bird’s eye views, early maps of San Francisco, and antique surveyor’s equipment.

Ore to Opulence: California Silver in the Gilded Age

June 19 – October 3, 2003

The Gilded Age, Mark Twain’s ironic term for the American counterpart to the Belle Epoque, was silver-plated for a few but a tarnished period in history for everyone else. Ore to Opulence explored the history of the Comstock Lode, as well as provided biographical sketches of the four silver kings, James G. Fair, James C. Flood, John W. Mackay, and William S. O’Brien.

The McCarthy Collection

January 8 – July 18, 2003

Patrick E. McCarthy (1846-1920) an Irish publisher working in San Francisco, acquired paintings from all the major California painters from the 1870s to the turn of the century. His collection was the only one in San Francisco that survived the 1906 earthquake intact. The McCarthy Collection, acquired in 1962 from McCarthy’s daughter, Ruth, includes some of the best-known artists from California history, including Samuel Marsden Brookes, Norton Bush, and Jules Tavernier.

Points of Interest: California Views 1860 – 1870

March 13, 2002-December 20, 2002

This exhibition featured the unique, historic photography collection of noted San Francisco photography publishers Lawrence & Houseworth. The original albums featured in this exhibition have an enormous range of stunning views portraying the early industries of mining, railroads, transportation, urban, and natural landscapes unique of California, as well as the evolving art of American photography from 1860 to 1870.

California: This Golden Land of Promise

February 7 – May 3, 2002

California: This Golden Land consisted of thirty-nine paintings on loan from the Irvine Museum and two private collections. The exhibition represented the flowering of a regional school of painting from the 1860s to the 1920sm and featured works that are both naturalistic and utopian in intention and execution.

Kiss of the Oceans: Commerce and Culture at the 1915 World’s Fair

September 8, 2000 – December 12, 2001

“The Kiss of the Oceans” was the inaugural exhibition of the Society of California Pioneers’ new museum and research center. Focusing on the spirit of social and technological progress exemplified by the opening of the Panama Canal and the rapid rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire, this exhibition explored the expansive opportunities these celebrated events promised for westward travel, trade and transportation.

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